Fancy names such as Helikopta, Engkabang, Bilun and Jipun?

These are products of inventive, sometimes humorous Iban parents when it comes to naming their kids at birth or upon reporting the births at National Registration Office (JPN) or with their clerk at District Office.

While serving in a teachers’ college and later in a few schools from Kanowit to Bau and of course going around the longhouses in Krian, Saribas, along the Rajang basin from Bawang Assan in Sibu to Nanga Mujong in Baleh, Kapit; from Medamit in Limbang to Temburong in Brunei, I came across peculiar names, thanks to imaginative Iban parents, who, instead of conventionally deriving names from their forebears/ancestors, name their offspring after an event, a happening, a phenomenon, or even after world leaders and ‘others’, the latter posing the question ‘to name or not to name?’ as in Shakespeare ‘to be or not to be’ (please read on for explanation).

So out of these we come across aforementioned names such a Helikopta after a helicopter while Bilun (aeroplane) as well as Engkabang (illipeanut) are related to each other – Bilun buah Engkabang is Iban word for helicopter. I know a few in Saratok named Jipun, mostly born in 1941/1942 during the Japanese occupation as Jipun is the Iban word for Japan and Japanese. Two of them are my relatives. These might have something to do with the enhanced presence of helicopters at the beginning of the Japanese era in Sarawak.

In schools I came across two students named after the assassinated US President John Kennedy whereas a Sessions Court judge is named after two of the country’s leaders combined, namely Nixon Kennedy. There are a few Iban named Churchill, even one or two Saddam and a few Sadat after the two Middle East leaders of different eras.

THE author (standing 2nd left) in a group photo with family members showing elder brother Edward Jelani (seated 2nd left), his son Jokerson Jembu (seated left) and his sister Florence May (standing right) and other family members during a recent event in Kuching.

Some are testaments of history for being named Malaysia, especially those born on 31 Aug 1963 while a relative of mine was given the name Sarawak at birth.

Closer to home and family, my late younger brother who lived only for forty days was named Tambi (an Iban equivalent of Indian) after a Pakistani carpet seller who lodged with my family at the time of his birth in 1959.   My big brother Edward Jelani, 75, a veteran Iban RTM recording artiste, named his second son Jokerson Jembu, 44, with the ethnic Iban name after my paternal grandfather whereas Jokerson was chosen as Edward was busy playing a game of  ginramy (where cards bearing images of the ‘jokers’ are very useful) when the son was born on Valentine’s Day that year but his uncle already took the name Valentine two decades earlier. Jokerson’s younger sister Florence May is so named for being born on first of May 42 years ago. As such the Bee Gees popular song ‘First of May’ always features on her birthdays. Jon my second brother gave a pet name ‘Laut’ to Regina, his second daughter as she was born during difficult time at a JKR camp and hence necessitated a male Malay – ‘Laut’ in Iban language means Malay – colleague to play maternity nurse. Hitherto many are thinking her I/C bears the name ‘Laut’. This relates to some nostalgic and sentimental Iban parents who name their kids after doctors or nurses present at their births. So we have Iban kids being name Rao Suresh, Lila, Gracia or Garcia, Lingam and many more names that are after doctors and nurses. An inventive non-English speaking Iban father named his kid Don Hiroshee that sounds Japanese but I was later told it came from a combination of three English words Don’t Hero She.

Two couples, both our close relatives, used to call me fondly as ‘Ajak’ till the day they were called home by the Lord many decades ago. My late mom once explained ‘Ajak’ was after a Malay male ‘Razak’ who headed a group of Malay rubber tappers working at a vast rubber plot, belonging to one of the aforesaid couples. Mom guessed I was fondly called ‘Ajak’ by the two uncles and aunties probably because of a failed attempt by Razak and wife to adopt me when I was an infant.

In my longhouse in Saratok, there is a nephew named Bala (meaning a lot of people – he was born during a festive celebration) whereas his sister was named Gata at birth, a short form of regatta, which was being held in Saratok at that time. There is also a relative named Berayan – the Iban equivalent of ‘accidently dropped/miscarried’ – for being born ‘dropping’ from the birth canal while the mother was enroute to a detached latrine outside their longhouse about 50 years ago. Berayan’s deformed torso is proof of this adversity.

There were times when superstitious Iban parents of old ritualistically chose names for their kids. I remember once during an adoption and name choosing ritual in Sibu circa 1985 where a rooster was deployed to ‘pick’ a given name out of a few choices.  Three names, each one written respectively on separate pieces of paper placed together with some grains of rice, were put and placed next to each other for the rooster to pick. The one it picked was the name given to the child though I cannot recall the name picked by the fowl. This answers the question ‘to name or not to name’ which also pertains to a case when a name is allegedly not suitable for a child who is frequently sick. For example big brother Edward Jelani was named Jerah at birth after our ancestor. Jerah did not go well with his health so Jelani (after our paternal great grandpa) was ‘picked’ by a hen when such ritual was performed.

Sentimentality and nostalgia cause Iban parents to name their kids after

For the average Iban parents Christianity brought about some changes but most of them stick to convention of naming their offspring after their forebears. However, sadly this is slowly becoming history as most modern parents do not even know the names of their grandparents. This becomes a vicious circle thus resulting in them adopting Christian names only.

When we were in Penang our names some friends made fun of our ethnic names. Some called me Valentine Taruh Seluk whereas my Kelabit friend, the now retired former SMK Tebakang principal Carter Ballang Kapong,  was teased with names including Kata Balik Kampung. We did not get offended; in fact we took pride in such teases and our names. The moral is take pride in whatever name given to you. And to take heed of Confucius, don’t laugh at others’ names, unless you want others to laugh at yours.